In the worn out torchlight I wrote in my diary:
From now on I will obey the rules of mountain safety, I will obey the rules of mountain safety, will obey the rules of mountain safety.
Exactly what those rules were I did not know. But I wrote and rewrote the promise anyhow, trying to cure the mistake after the fact. Trying bustle the what-ifs out the door. Trying to feel a little less shaken up.
The day had started later than I hoped but soon found momentum. Mid-morning I’d crawled out of my tent into the light of the unexpected arctic sun. It was, I figured, time for a wash, and so I stripped off and bathed by tipping near-frozen lake water out of my billy and over myself. Confronted with impossible odds, the fog of over-sleep surrendered without a fight. I ate, chucked bits and pieces of lunch into my bag, and set off inland, Walkman playing, singing to the valley’s echos.
My target was the lower of two peaks that stood behind the Greenlandic city of Nuuk. My original plan had been to climb both, a ridge ran between them, but I figured I’d left it too late; wasted too much of the full day needed for the trip, so I settled on the shorter hike to the first one. But as I walked under the stretched out sky, I found a purposeful groove. Every step was easier than the last; I sped over the tundra, threading a course between boulders and tea-coloured lakes. My eager legs chewed up the steep track to the lower peak. And at the top I had lunch with an older Danish guy. It was early afternoon already, but he knew the mountain, and was reassuring:
“Oh at the speed you’re walking you’ll make the it to the top of the other one. Easy.”
He also had a map.
“You see this trail? From the top it will take you straight down, so you don’t have to come back this way. Much quicker.”
And so I sped off, along the zig-zagging track, past part-frozen tarns. I was puffed by the time I reached the second peak but it was worth it. Put in its place, Nuuk was no longer a city, but just a tiny thumb of human presence, occupying a insignificant peninsular halfway along an immense fjord. Icebergs were dotted across the water, like the sails of yachts in summer. And it was all so empty, hills rolling into mountains, and falling into the sea. Ridges and ranges, and beyond Nuuk nothing, no sign of people, other than the pile of stones in front of me and two thinly penciled radio masts, just visible on a distant hill line. Shadows from the lowering sun left everything perfectly defined.
I drank it in as long as I dared and then started down. The track from the map wasn’t clear. But I set out the way I thought it lead, finding just enough evidence – a footprint maybe? a boot worn stone? – to convince myself that I was following something. Soon though, the way steepened. I clambered down rock too steep for soil or shrubs. And started to doubt my course, uncertainty increasing with every scrabble. It should have been obvious much, much earlier but it wasn’t until I was about a third of the way down that I realised I definitely wasn’t on a track. When finally I figured that out I stopped. Pondering for a bit what to do. I could climb back up, time was running down, but not that critical. But part of me was still beguiled by my forward momentum, reluctant to give ground, and confident for no other reason than that everything had gone so well so far. So I kept on down. Just don’t go down anything you can’t make it back up, I told myself by way of compromise.
Maybe half an hour later, and probably half way down the ever steepening face I found myself peering over the edge of something too vertical for anyone but a rock climber. Shit. Time to go back up. Except, all of a sudden, back up wasn’t so easy. True to my word, I hadn’t gone down anything I couldn’t return up. But I hadn’t figured on the dose of fear that washed out of my chest when I began to climb. I was utterly alone, unsure of my climbing ability, and far enough north that hypothermia was certain if I ended up stranded overnight. And, of course, I hadn’t told anyone of my plans. There was no one waiting for me back at the empty campground, ready to call mountain rescue should I fail to return. And this made the slope so very much more difficult. Fear made my muscles tense and weak at the same time. And the butterflies banging about in my stomach threatened to pitch me off the rock. I didn’t climb far, and I’m not sure if I could of, when I spied another route down. Not a track, but a way, maybe, off to the left of the one I’d been on, a slender course of not so steep slope skirting round the bluffs which had truncated my original route. Until I tried it, I’d have no way of knowing if it really did make it all the way to the base. If I tried it, I might end up beyond the point of no return, far enough down that I didn’t have the strength to pull myself back up. Or too late in the fading light. Then again, for all I knew, maybe I was beyond the point of no return already. My anxious eyes ran up and down, trying to answer these questions. And in the end I decided to give it a go. Mainly, I think, because doing so delayed the moment of reckoning, the moment when I discovered I couldn’t actually boulder my way back up.
I got lucky. Each tiny crowberry-covered pitch met up with the next, carrying me past drop-offs, and across. Across, and down, until I hit the tail end of the actual track, the one I’d missed all that way back up at the peak. The track carried me out onto some grassy flats where I celebrated, laughing, talking to myself in an odd croaky voice.
After that, relief carried me away from the mountain’s base, along the side of an inlet and onto the road between the airport and Nuuk. At a bend in the road, I turned and looked back and felt a whole new – ex post – fear. How close it had been. Viewed front-on the slope I descended was little more than a series of cliffs and drop offs. My makeshift path to it’s base the only way down that didn’t involve ropes or falling. I felt a sick churning understanding, aware just how much luck had been my lifeline.
I turned again and started walking, tired legs propelled by a new need for speed: the desire to leave what might have been as far behind me as I could.